Clinical ladders—structured hierarchies of professional levels with skill progression and competency acquisition as components of each level—have been used to recognize individual performance and to establish standards for professional advancement by nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, pharmacy, and other professions. As a profession, however, speech-language pathology has failed to recognize and reward clinicians for their experience and achievements using clinical ladders.
The purpose of a clinical ladder is to provide incentives for advancement, financial rewards, and professional recognition. The lack of opportunities for advancement is a problem in the profession of speech-language pathology, and clinical ladders are a potential solution—especially if they include recognition of specialty certification as a central component and recognize advanced clinical practice and specialization.
A review of the literature reveals that nursing has taken the lead in developing and implementing clinical ladders. The driving force was lack of stability of the workforce. Dating back to the early 1970s there were recurring shortages of nurses. Recognition systems with an emphasis on developing higher-level competencies began to emerge to attract and retain nurses (Bjørk et al., 2007). Higher job satisfaction overall and personal growth were realized through the implementation of clinical ladders (Malik, 1991; Meador, 1995). Nurses in the higher levels of a ladder experienced greater job satisfaction than did nurses at lower levels (Roedel & Nystrom, 1987; Schultz, 1993). Nurses who were participants in clinical ladder programs reported lower rates of turnover and intent to leave than non-participants (Corley et al., 1994; Drenkard & Swartwout, 2005; Schultz, 1993).
Speech-language pathologists can learn from the evolution of clinical ladders in nursing and tailor programs to meet the needs of SLPs. The reasons for the lack of clinical ladders for SLPs may be the paucity of research in our field in this area and a lack of attention to developing clinical ladders with higher levels for the expert clinician. This void may be undermining the profession; policies and procedures that are established generally apply to basic service provision by novice staff. Emphasis should instead be placed on developing systems of formal acknowledgement and legitimization of expertise with financial reward and clinical promotion.
Current trends may be changing, however, as suggested by the periodic requests for information on established clinical ladders from members of various speech-language pathology e-mail discussion groups.
Elements of a Clinical Ladder for SLPs
A clinical ladder recognizes skills and identifies potential for advancement based on a structured hierarchy with skill progression and competency acquisition as components of several levels, with each level tied to financial incentives (see Table 1 [PDF]). The ladder always should be a work in progress, under construction, and continually revised to keep up with the changing marketplace. A well-organized and concise clinical ladder demonstrates the program's support of the SLP's growth and clinical development and will also help attract new staff, recognize excellence, reward and compensate increased levels, reduce turnover, recognize expertise in a specific field or subspecialty, and provide the opportunity to market specialized services.
Implementing a Clinical Ladder
Implementing a clinical ladder involves identifying the culture within your facility, reviewing clinical ladders for nursing and other allied health professions, and examining ladders from similar settings in your community. Take the time to set up a clinical ladder with meaningful levels and competencies that reflect your organization's values and ideals. Consider the following steps:
- Evaluate your setting. Consider your setting, staffing patterns, and potential for mentoring to help clinicians achieve clinical growth. Explore your team's willingness to seek an "above-and-beyond" culture. Establish goals to develop specific clinical competencies, making sure to assess and include current practices within your facility. Consider how your department celebrates individual and team achievements. Many departments are rich with mentors who inspire and teach novice staff members; if that is the case, build the clinical expertise and talents of the expert clinician into your ladder. Mentoring a novice clinician is time-consuming but valuable, and is even more valuable if the department recognizes and shows appreciation for mentoring efforts.
- Establish performance goals. A successful program must include clearly defined performance goals, expectations, and outcomes. Begin by defining departmental and individual goals to establish a clear direction for your program. Know your staff's productivity level and set realistic goals that foster growth and learning and that encourage and reward advanced competency achievement. Include reinforcement and feedback that is prompt, frequent, respectful, and specific. Most importantly, advocate for your staff. This process will yield results especially as your staff gains clinical expertise that senior management recognize as essential to providing the highest level of patient care.
- Set team goals for improvement. Process improvement requires people improvement. An effective approach is to ensure adequate and ongoing education/training and competency-level advancement for speech-language pathology staff. The field is constantly evolving; staff should receive support in their efforts to keep up with current research, attend conferences, and conduct research. These activities are invaluable tools to help SLPs acquire higher levels of skill that will achieve better results for patients.
- Include financial incentives. A successful clinical ladder should include financial support to learn and to advance skills.
Learn by Doing
"Watch one, do one, teach one" is the medical student's competency structure, and the key to establishing clinical competencies is embedded in learning by practice (Lester, 1995). The structure of many clinical ladders begins with basic competencies and progresses to advanced competencies.
ASHA guidelines can provide the basis for developing clinical competencies in speech-language pathology. For example, ASHA's Knowledge and Skills for Speech-Language Pathologists With Respect to Vocal Tract Visualization and Imaging is extremely beneficial in developing competencies in laryngeal stroboscopy. To help clinicians move up the skills ladder, identify and include attendance at specific continuing education opportunities as a step toward achieving the designated competency; require clinicians to review appropriate texts and articles; and include a practicum component with close mentorship.
Advanced competencies can be supported through specialty certification, which is a prime example of reaching for new levels within our field. Specialty certification provides an opportunity for clinicians to highlight a particular area of interest and clinical expertise and is a means by which SLPs with advanced knowledge, skills, and experience beyond the Certificate of Clinical Competence can be recognized by consumers, colleagues, referral and payer sources, and the general public. The specialty recognition program, which ASHA initiated in 1995, includes specialty boards in child language, fluency disorders, and swallowing and swallowing disorders.
One of the major benefits of the clinical ladder program is improved retention when incentives are incorporated in each level. Clinical ladders serve to improve staff expertise level and job satisfaction, which result in improved patient outcomes and increased patient satisfaction.